Three months ago, Thierry Henry and New York Red Bulls were sitting pretty at the top of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference. Then the wheels came off, with an eight-game winless run allowing the chasing pack to first close the gap, then surge ahead.
The good news for the Red Bulls, who currently occupy fifth spot in the East, but only trail the leaders by five points, is that they still have three weeks to save their season. That means they have enough time to at least clinch one of the four playoff wild card spots or even top the conference.
If New York are to do so, though, much will depend on a trio who made their names in English football. Former Arsenal talisman Henry’s importance to the Red Bulls’ cause needs little explanation. The Frenchman tops the team’s scoring charts with 13 goals, provides the bulk of the cutting edge up front and represents the star quality that brings fans flocking to the statium.
But Henry cannot do it all by himself and needs more from two team-mates who also gained experience across the pond. First, his strike partner Luke Rodgers has plenty to prove. The 5"8 poacher bounced around the English Football League, starring for Shrewsbury Town, Crewe Alexandra, Port Vale, Yeovil and Notts County while also making headlines for questionable off-the-pitch behaviour. But Rodgers now has the chance to make real strides. At 29, his best football should still be ahead of him and he has the perfect mentor in Henry.
And then there is Teemu Tainio, the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder. The Finn joined the Red Bulls in March and his midfield partnership with Rafael Marquez ranks among the league’s best on paper. But with Marquez spending time in the back four, the pair have had limited opportunities to gel. Tainio must turn the corner in the final three games and become a more dominant presence in protecting a defence that has often looked shaky in recent months.
Only the MLS could have brought together these three players, from very different backgrounds and with contrasting levels of success, and they will be expected to play leading roles down the home stretch as the Red Bulls bid to avoid one of the worst collapses in MLS history. That challenge gets no easier this week as New York prepare for the visit of David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Los Angeles Galaxy.
The testing run of results has clearly taken its toll on manager Hans Backe and his players. Marquez hardly helped matters when, after a 3-1 loss to Real Salt Lake, he said: “I almost didn’t commit any errors, so I am not worried. I think I am playing at my maximum level, and doing everything I can. I don’t have, unfortunately, four defenders on my level that can help me out.”
Backe moved to downplay concerns over the mood in the dressing room, but doubts remain. Misplaced passes are met with frustrated body language, with hands raised in dismay and heads dropping. Henry, the Red Bulls captain, is among the culprits – a reminder that his style at Arsenal was to lead by example rather than with words.
In Toronto on Saturday, New York faltered once again and collected their 16th draw from 31 games this season, needing a clinical late Henry goal to salvage a point. Meanwhile, Marquez, for all his recent proclamations, had a wretched night back in midfield.
Amid all the question marks over the Red Bulls’ struggles and prospects, Henry summed it up best. Do he and his team-mates feel that if they reach the post-season, they have as good a shot as anyone? “There are way better teams than us in this league”, he admitted. “The post-season looks far away for us right now. We’re not like LA and some of the other teams who can think about the playoffs. We have to take it game by game.”
Strange though it is to pour doubt on a team featuring a legend of the game like Henry, the Red Bulls do not look potential MLS Cup contenders. The Henry-Rodgers-Tainio trio have just a handful of games left to prove otherwise.
Photo credit: Daily Harrison